MEDIA, Pa.—On a cigarette break outside the Seven Stones coffee house yesterday, Ashleigh Piazza, 23, did not hesitate when asked how Democratic nominee Barack Obama's race could affect his success here in southeastern Pennsylvania.
"It's kind of sad to say, but I think it's a major issue," said Piazza, a file clerk at the nearby Delaware County Courthouse, where in a few hours GOP nominee John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, would hold a rally. "There's lots of talk about his race around town," says Piazza. An Obama supporter even offered Piazza's mom $40 at a local bar the other night, she says, just to listen to him make a case for the Illinois senator.
Her coworker Jackie Zane, 23, said simply: "There is a lot going on around the race issue. Some say it just doesn't look right."
The young women, both raised Catholic, didn't know it, but as they were talking about the prospects of Obama's effort to become the first black president, a new poll was released suggesting that their hyperlocal analysis was reflected nationwide. Obama's multiracial background—his mother is white and father is black—could lose him up to 6 percentage points in what is expected to be a close fall contest against McCain, according to an AP-Yahoo survey conducted between August 27 and September 5. The survey was the first one of its kind that attempted to get at a subject that both the media and voters themselves have found difficult to talk about: how racism could affect the November outcome.
Ever since Obama entered the presidential contest—and particularly after he emerged as a legitimate contender after winning the Iowa caucuses in January—speculation about the affect his skin color might have on his path to the White House has been largely whispered. But as Election Day nears, conversations about race have become more public and more common, says Ed Hardison, 78, a Democratic activist from nearby Middletown Township.
"The biggest problem we have is the racism," said Hardison, who had planted himself on a West State Street bench to watch GOP loyalists and the curious stream by to the McCain-Palin event. "As the race issue comes up to the top—it's there now—maybe policy positions on healthcare, the economy, debate about help with foreclosures will play a more important role."
Hardisan says he also believes that pushbacks against racism, like a letter to the editor by a Philadelphia priest that appeared yesterday morning in the Philadelphia Inquirer, may help. In the letter, headlined "Racism is a sin," the Rev. Stephen Thorne, an African-American who heads the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Office for Black Catholics, reminded readers that "the bishops have made it clear they will not tolerate bigotry."
Thorne's missive came in response to an earlier letter writer who called on Catholic bishops to take a more active role in denouncing racism as against church teachings with the zeal with which they denounce abortion, for example.
"As someone who has witnessed racism firsthand," wrote Thorne, "I believe the church has had a consistent voice condemning this sin."
Hardisan predicted that the bad economic news will move a number of people who now say they won't vote for a black person into Obama's column by Election Day—even though many "will be forced to make a decision they didn't want to make." Hardisan spends part of the year in Florida and has heard his fellow retirees suggest that George Washington would "roll over in his grave" if a black man became president, but go on to say they'll vote for Obama because they oppose the war.
The discomfort, the high-stakes prospect of historic change, is clearly affecting Piazza, too, who says she plans to vote for McCain, even though she is drawn to what she called "Obama's vision."
"They all promise you this, this, and this," she says, squirming a bit. "I get nervous thinking about deciding who to vote for."